Dead ringers

Film retrospective - Philip Kerr on Charlie Chaplin and his shadow self - Adolf Hitler

Charlie Chaplin first played the little tramp for which he is best remembered in 1914. By Chaplin's own account, Mack Sennett, to whose Keystone Film Company Chaplin was contracted, had believed Charlie to be an older man and the toothbrush moustache was chosen "to add age without hiding my expression". Chaplin could hardly then have imagined the existence of a "shadow self", a doppelganger named Adolf Hitler, serving with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry on the Western Front - a man who had been a tramp himself and whose own toothbrush moustache (it was only after the Great War that Hitler trimmed his walrus moustache) was to help make his poster image as iconic as Chaplin's.

It has been suggested that Chaplin's enormous popularity may have persuaded Hitler that similar success would follow his own choice of Schnurrbart. But it seems more likely that Hitler had a moustache for the same reason Chaplin did: because it made him look older, and that the minimalist, toothbrush version was chosen for simplicity's sake. Unlike Hermann Goering, Hitler never favoured fancy uniforms or personal adornments.

Chaplin and Hitler had much more in common than just their moustaches, however. Both men were born in April 1889, within four days of each other; both had difficult childhoods, with violent or alcoholic fathers and ailing mothers; and both men left their native countries to make it big somewhere else. Both men loved the cinema, too, but German audiences did not respond well to the theatrical-looking Hitler in silent newsreels. Unlike Chaplin's career, however, Hitler's fortunes were transformed for the better by a film about a Jew named Asa Yoelson, better known as Al Jolson, whose 1927 movie The Jazz Singer ushered in the era of sound in motion pictures. Hitler certainly used sound far more effectively than Chaplin ever did.

Acutely aware that the clock was ticking for silent movies, Chaplin set about looking for a subject for his first "talkie", but he made little progress in finding a story and, by 1937, it must have seemed inevitable to him that his own career would have to fuse with that of his "shadow self". Indeed, it was perhaps fortunate for Chaplin that Hitler existed at all.

It was Alexander Korda who suggested that Chaplin film a Hitler story based on mistaken identity. Chaplin started work with alacrity, financing the picture himself to the tune of $2m (about $24m today). At this point it is worth mentioning how keen the rest of Hollywood was to ignore Hitler; after all, American pictures played very well in Germany. David O Selznick, never one to put principle ahead of profit, even tried to acquire the film rights to Mein Kampf. Selznick, who was Jewish and had produced one of Hitler's own favourite movies, King Kong (1933), and would later produce Gone With the Wind (1939), reasoned that Hitler's book was a bestseller in Germany and that a movie version might do good business. I've even read a story that Selznick contemplated paying Bertolt Brecht, then exiled in Hollywood, to write the screenplay.

When word got out about Chaplin's plans, Hollywood's reaction was hostile. And, anxious not to offend Germany, the British government (Chaplin never gave up his British citizenship) even said that it would ban the film. Where a lesser, poorer man might have decided it best to forget the project, Chaplin carried on regardless. Rallies of the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden, with 20,000 in attendance, and congressional investigations into the Jewish influence on motion pictures serve only to underline how courageous his decision was. It is commonly assumed that Chaplin was Jewish, but this was not the case, although the egalitarian Chaplin often said he hoped there was a certain amount of Jew in him.

Finally, in 1940, 559 days after starting the project, The Great Dictator was released and, judged by its box office, became Chaplin's most commercial picture. It is neither his best film nor his best comedy, but it is perhaps his most personal film. I remember my grandfather telling me how funny he had found Chaplin's spoof Hitlerian speeches; but today, The Great Dictator looks like less of a comedy and more of a comic tragedy. Such laughs as there are mostly come from Jack Oakie, who gives a magnificent performance as Napaloni, a dead ringer for Il Duce. The scene where the two dictators meet to decide the fate of Osterlich is unforgettable.

Chaplin himself plays two parts in the movie: a Jewish barber who, suffering loss of memory, returns to his shop in Tomania unaware that it is now part of a ghetto in a country ruled by the brutal dictator Adenoid Hynkel, also played by Chaplin. The barber refuses to kowtow to bullying storm troopers and, forced to flee the ghetto, he dresses up in an army uniform; mistaken for Hynkel (who himself has been mistaken for the wanted barber), the barber is obliged to address a Nuremberg-style party rally. Chaplin proceeds to use this, the concluding scene of the film, as the opportunity to make a very personal speech about liberty and democracy which some have compared to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. And while critics have questioned its dramatic credentials as a fitting end to a picture, it should be remembered that this is the most famous star in cinema history using a film financed entirely by himself to plead for peace. In a more cynical age, where wishing out loud for world peace has become something of a trope for the weaker-minded, the speech still manages to move, and amounts to nothing less than an extraordinary cinematic artefact that deserves greater currency.

Writing in his autobiography, published in 1964, Chaplin confessed that, had he known of "the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator: I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis". There are others such as Gitta Sereny who agree with him, and this might explain why the film is not seen on television more often than it is. Certainly there is little to laugh at in the uncompromising scene where the Jewish barber is half-lynched by storm troopers.

Doubtless Chaplin also regretted the antagonism that the film seemed to generate in the right-wing, isolationist American press, which was anti-communist just as rabidly as it was anti-Nazi. And even after America came into the war on the same side as the Russians, Chaplin found that his uncompromising anti-fascist stance had made an enemy of the not-so-great dictator J Edgar Hoover, who determined to "get" Chaplin in the same nasty, small-minded way he set out to "get" other, better men than he, such as Paul Robeson and Albert Einstein.

Hoover ensured that public opinion swung against poor Chaplin, and his next film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) - which anticipates the very similar, British-made Kind Hearts and Coronets by almost two years - flopped. Chaplin went to Europe to try to promote the film there. To America's shame, he was barred from re-entering the US because of his supposedly left-wing views. It is hard to reconcile the little tramp with the "dangerous alien" described in the paranoid American newspapers of the time.

In an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult to make films in this country, we should not forget that the most popular movie actor who ever lived was born in Lambeth.

Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) is released into cinemas by the British Film Institute. Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay films volumes I and II will also be available on DVD from the BFI